Do Austrians want to forget, not confront, their past?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON Wednesday, March 9, 1938, the Viennese Jews thought they were safe. Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg offered an opening to the left, and called a referendum that was sure to turn down unification with Adolf Hitler's Germany. ``Men - the hour has struck!'' he exclaimed, quoting a legendary Tyrolean hero.

Besides, cosmopolitan ``red Vienna'' - the former home of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg, the socialist stronghold that by contrast to the more conservative countryside - had fully assimilated its successful Jews. And pro-government demonstrations in the capital were increasing to counter the pro-Nazi demonstrations.

After the chancellor's summons, workers toiled all night long painting walls and streets with huge ``Yeses'' to a free and independent Austria, recounts George Clare in the autobiography of his boyhood, ``Last Waltz in Vienna.'' ``Aeroplanes showered leaflets over the city. ... The whole city was a seething, teeming hot-bed of patriotic emotion and activity. Vienna had last witnessed comparable scenes in August 1914, when its crowds acclaimed the outbreak of the war.''

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But on Friday, March 11, the Jews found out how wrong their presumptions of safety were. Hitler presented an ultimatum; Chancellor Schuschnigg called off the plebiscite.

After hearing the announcement, Clare's family sat in stunned silence. And then the roar began as thousands of Austrian Nazis rolled by in trucks outside, chanting, ``One people, one Reich, one F"uhrer! Perish Judih!'' George, looking out the window, saw the friendly corner policeman, a swastika suddenly on his sleeve, beating a man who had called out against the Nazis.

On Saturday, March 12, the patriotic mood had changed to an equally enthusiastic pro-Nazi mood. Festive Austrian flags with swastikas hastily sewn on flew everywhere. Squadrons of German bombers circled low over Vienna, dropping leaflets. Hitler entered Linz, received an ecstatic welcome, and declared Anschluss, or union between Austria and the Third Reich.

For full-blooded Austrians the years of post-imperial humiliation, unemployment, and civil war were over. For Jews, the years of terror began. And the Austrians, unlike the Germans, did not bother, even at the beginning, to restrain their anti-Semitism. Within hours of Anschluss, Jewish cabarettist Fritz Gr"unbaum was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, there to be clubbed to death.

There was a ``volcanic outburst of popular anti-Semitism,'' relates Clare. Stars of David were painted onto Jewish shops.

Statistically, Austrians constituted only 8.5 percent of the greater German population; yet they would provide three-fourths of commanders of the extermination camps and commit a minimum of 40 percent of all war crimes, in the calculation of veteran Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

But the Austrians were declared by the victors of World War II to be victims of Anschluss, and not co-perpetrators of the the murder of some 6 million Jews.

In the postwar world the Austrians therefore never had to offer restitution to Jews, as West Germans did. They never had to challenge the postwar anti-Semitism that has remained much closer to the surface here than in West Germany. They sentenced relatively more war criminals in the immediate postwar years than did the occupying powers in West Germany.

But this period of reckoning ended in 1949 as both major parties solicited the votes of former Nazi-party members.

In consequence, today's 50th anniversary of Anschluss is not an easy one for Austrians.

It has come to be symbolized by the person they chose to be their head of state - President Kurt Waldheim, a man who stands accused by a commission of historians of lying about this period in his own life, when he was a lieutenant in the Balkans in a German army that was committing atrocities against Yugoslav civilians and sending Greek Jews to the death camps.

Is this an occasion for reopening the questions of conscience the Austrians have not yet been forced to face? Is there a void that still needs to be filled?

``Absolutely not,'' says Ursula Gruner, a Viennese born after the war. ``It's terrible that so many Jews were killed. But the Austrians had nothing to do with it. Austrians just lived next door to Germany'' and therefore got drawn in. She hadn't studied anything about this period at all in school, nor did she see any special need for Austrians to examine their past.

She thought further that the whole controversy about Waldheim was cooked up by the Austrian Socialists to try to force the conservatives' President out of office and put their own man in - and also to draw attention away from the Socialists' own dirt and scandal. Dr. Waldheim should be left in peace, she thought.

Her friend Ruth Berger agreed. ``I am not anti-Semitic,'' she noted. ``But it gets on my nerves the way this issue [about Waldheim] is played up. I'm helpless with anger.'' She pointed to the current killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops as an example of the terrible things that are done in war - and added that it was the Israeli government, not the people, who were responsible for these acts. She thought that the campaign against Waldheim was paying off a grudge for his friendliness toward the Arabs when he was UN secretary-general.

Both women noted, however, that their 17-year-old children were much more exercised about the whole issue than they were.

A middle-aged taxi driver agreed. ``It's ridiculous!'' he exclaimed about the accusations against Waldheim. ``It's just trickery.... All right, bad things happen in a war. He was just a 20-year-old. He did his duty like everyone else.''

A second taxi driver commented, ``I'm too young to have an opinion. I didn't live through it. I've just read about it.''

Was it necessary to explore the past and think through Austrian actions?

``Oh no. That's the past. We live in another epoch.... Terrible things happen in war.''

These interviews don't represent the balance of Austrian views, says Roland Machatschke, senior editor at Austrian Radio. ``The front is crumbling,'' he said, pointing to the weekly demonstrations by several thousands calling for Waldheim's resignation. He suggested that the dividing line is largely generational, with those over 50 supporting him, those under 50 finding him a burden on a country that does not want to live in isolation from the rest of the world. He noted that the reluctance of Austrians to talk about the past was broken by the whole controversy about Waldheim that began in 1986. Numerous books and other materials are now available about that era, and the subject is now being openly discussed after the long silence.

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